A Kind of Writing Prompt

I want to refer to Brevity one more time, or anyway Brevity’s blog, where on Halloween Dinty Moore posted a short animated film made via the web site Xtranormal, titled “What Is Creative about Creative Nonfiction?”  The film depicts, in one fraught conversation, one of the ongoing discussions in the genre, which concerns the question of whether or not a creative nonfiction writer is at liberty to “make things up” in his or her work.  Conversations on this subject are, in reality, rarely so blatant or so polarized as is Moore’s Xtranormal dramatization of it – but then, sometimes they are.

At the moment, I’m interested in the question raised in the dialogue film less than I am in Xtranormal itself.  Web sites like Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr interest me for all kinds of reasons, as they do many others, but one is that in different ways they facilitate the creativity of their users.  They function essentially as very-short-form writing prompts – Twitter especially.  Some of us respond to these prompts more memorably than others do, and of course they produce more social interaction than they do masterpieces of limited size, but the basic premise is, in the case of Twitter and of Facebook’s status updates, that you have this little space to take up with some words, and you’re invited to do what you can with it.  It’s like what a blank sheet of paper does, only much smaller, electronic, and with a potentially more immediate, built-in audience, plus advertising.

Xtranormal is significantly different, in that you’re encouraged to write at greater length than, say, Twitter, but moreso because whatever you come up with is translated into a short animated film, in which one or two people speak the words you’ve written in a bizarre monotone that sounds like a mash-up of the voices of Hal-9000, Data, and the NPR announcer who comes on at the end of every show and lists the program’s underwriters.  I have, as it happens, been amused to tears by a computerized person’s intonation of the sentence, “What kind of sandwich would that make it?”

An Xtranormal video is about as similar to a polished short story as a diary entry is to a polished essay, but I have not attempted to write more than 5,000 words of fiction in my life, and after watching the short film at Brevity I made four of my own Xtranormal films yesterday, and the only thing preventing me from making more of them today is that I have a job and I must do the things I have to do in order to keep it.  I mention this not to celebrate a personal creative triumph – an activity that doesn’t suit me any more than it does the fact that I threw away so much of yesterday on this very unproductive thing – but for what it’s worth I’ve taken to this strange writing format as I never would have expected myself to do, and this is the kind of thing, I suspect, that can lead some people to more substantial creative production, even if it has led me merely to throw away another Sunday typing things into a web site.

To make all this relevant to something else, today is the first day of NaNoWriMo.  That combination of letters, as you probably know, represents the practice of writing an entire novel in one month, which apparently a lot of people are trying to do this November.  It’s another prompt to creativity, one that is much more demanding than any I have considered participating in.  My hat goes off to everyone who is willing to be a part of this practice, and I wish them all luck.  But it’s worth recognizing that there are other ways to strike those fleeting creative sparks than to set massive goals for oneself, to be accomplished in a very limited span of time, and one of them is to make animated people say strange things on the Internet.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

Thursday Think Day: Brevity, Lia Purpura, and the moral essay

It’s Thursday Think Day again, and I’m excited to tell you what I’ve been thinking about.

I attended a meeting last night, in which I was to pitch my genre – creative nonfiction – to some undergraduate students who were interested in hearing about it, possibly even writing it.  I knew I couldn’t do this alone – or, I was too tired to do it without help from some pieces of paper with writing on them – so I turned to Brevity, the journal of concise literary nonfiction that lends itself so well to this purpose.  It is readily accessed, and its content is conducive to presentation in a limited time, as it is all remarkably short.

To demonstrate the virtues of creative nonfiction – and of the essay in particular – I turned to Lia Purpura’s “On Being a Trucker.”  It begins with speculation as to the language used by truckers to describe their cargoes, and then follows a quick series of associations to reach a conclusion that is utterly astonishing, given the sweep of its implications, its apparent distance from the opening lines, and the celerity with which its author leads us to them.  You don’t need me to tell you this; I urge you to follow the link and read it, which is something that requires so little effort I sometimes feel guilty for not giving thanks to the Internet more often, it makes some tasks so easy for us.

Purpura’s essay is like a precisely landed punch to the chest, and it makes plain several of the things I value in the essay, or in creative nonfiction generally.  One is obvious:  Purpura’s relationship to her reader is a rather unique one, one by which she may offer her simulated train of thought in a more or less straightforward fashion, directly from writer to reader.  The essay as a genre is also known, I explained to my very small audience, for precisely the sort of movements Purpura makes, as an essay follows a series of unlikely associations, often to their equally unlikely conclusion.  Not only does the piece demonstrate – and very briefly – the virtues of the essay; it is simply a great piece of writing.

So what have I been thinking about this today?  Well, whenever I come across an essay that warrants great enthusiasm – which isn’t rare – like an entomologist, I want to catalogue it, and decide what kind of essay it is.  I don’t think Purpura’s is a personal essay, though I couldn’t rule it out; it reasons things out a little to explicitly to be a lyric essay – a conclusion I suspect many would disagree with; and I would have a hard time calling it a familiar essay.  Rather, I have been interested, more and more lately, in the moral essay, an essay subgenre you don’t hear much about anymore, but which I think might be in for some recognition, and which I think this might be an example of.  Because it’s Thursday Think Day, and not Explain Yourself Sunday, I’m going to leave it at that.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.


Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog featured a note today from R.T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah, a journal many back issues of which are on a shelf behind me, concerning the expansion of its digital presence and the end of its sixty-year run as a print journal.

This is old news, but news to me, and my immediate impulse, for what it’s worth, is to voice my support for print, because despite Egon Spengler’s insistence as long ago as 1984 that “Print is dead,” I still believe in it, for reasons that have been articulated many times over  across the blogosphere and even outside of it, nowhere more memorably (to me) than in Nicholson Baker’s 2001 book Double Fold, which addresses the ’ tendency among libraries to throw out their print collections in favor of digitization.

The soberer approach, however, might be to see a move like Shenandoah’s – as many others do – as a natural step in the progression of a literary journal that intends to be accessible and relevant in an increasingly digital literary world.  And there are advantages to a move like this one; as Smith’s note reads,

“While many of us harbor divided minds about the dwindling of the physical print medium, I’m enthusiastic about the possibilities – from audio presentations to ease of access and extended audience and more frequent updates – presented by this brave new world of the Internet.”

This is a subject worth discussion far beyond what I can conjure up on my own this Monday afternoon, but I can agree with the above-quoted sentiment wholeheartedly, and not a little because of the nature of my current affiliation with TMR.

Robert Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

Revisiting "Seven Wonders"

I just read an article on newly discovered sea creatures that reminds me of a wonderful little essay by Lewis Thomas. The essay’s titled “Seven Wonders.” Everybody should read it. It appears in Lewis’s collection, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a title that fits rather nicely with our latest List of the Week.

My first encounter with “Seven Wonders” was as an undergraduate at Southeast Missouri State University in a class taught by Dr. Gaskins, an insightful writer and writing center director who years later would chair my thesis committee. I’m grateful he made our class read it. It’s a list essay, and in the spirit of the list, here are three reasons “Seven Wonders” is remarkable. 

For one, it’s a great example of personal writing supported by science (or would it be science decorated with personal writing?) — a tricky negotiation, as anyone who’s graded freshman composition essays will agree. The blending of evidence with opinion is elegant, and the authority steering the piece is unquestionable. Absent altogether are the usual gear-stripping shifts between what the author knows from personal observation and what is known to science at large.

For two, it’s a refreshing example of a literary artifact by a writer who’s into more than just being a writer and doing writerly things. Why refreshing? Because a lot of writers nowadays — even the very good ones — are kicking it FUBU-style. Maybe that sprung from the “write what you know” movement. I’m not sure. In any case, there are a whole lot of poems about writing poetry, and a whole lot of stories about English teachers trying to publish their stories, and a whole lot of essays about writers and about writing. We’re drawing creative nourishment from ourselves, and after a while, it sort of feels like we’ve become characters in a castaway movie, stuck on a raft together and drinking our own pee. In “Seven Wonders,” Thomas shows that a writer with varied interests and separate areas of expertise is invigorating to read. He makes a convincing case that this approach to writing is much healthier overall.  

Reason number three — and this seems like a silly reason “Seven Wonders” is a remarkable list essay — is that it’s a list essay that’s remarkable. There have been other successful attempts at this kind of writing; Brian Arundel’s “Things I Have Lost” over at Brevity is one noteworthy example. Generally, though, most list essays read like responses to exercises in self help books, lacking the curiosity and … well … wonder that makes Thomas’s essay endearing. In just a couple of pages he inspires a feeling that life on Earth is miraculous and special. Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything, inspires the same feeling, only decades later, and in a few hundred more pages. What Thomas achieved is the primary function of the list: rank things concisely, creating structure through categorization. He takes it a step farther with his insight, conveyed through his exquisite knack at explaining.

Got a Seven Wonders list of your own? You know we want to see it.

Case of the Missing Sense of Purpose

It’d been one of those days when my mind was like a personal check from a grad student: unlikely to clear. I stepped outside to give it a try nonetheless.

I left my office and walked across campus toward the little coffeeshop in the library, figuring that if the stroll didn’t do the trick, a couple doses of caffeine might. Plus, maybe I’d pick up a lead on the case of how little coffeeshops keep popping up in libraries — a trail that had gone cold on me weeks ago.

Speaking of weeks ago, I’d been thinking about a blog I’d read on Brevity back in August. It’d been reposted from fiction writer Blake Butler’s site and had given a suggestion for how to deal with the piles of submissions that arrive each day.   

“The flood comes strong,” Butler had written. “Stand in the flood.” 

That’s why I was out on this stroll, though. I’d been trying to stand in the flood, but it felt like the flood was standing in me.

Or at least the flood was part of it. More than that, though, this was the kind of day when everything seemed futile — thinking, reading, solving a coffeeshop conspiracy theory — all of it. It was the kind of day when you think oh, what’s the point but it has a period instead of a question mark. Optimism had been a guest in the hotel I manage that day, but had checked out and stolen all the room towels; I knew deep down those towels were gone.

Two students walked toward me on the sidewalk  a guy and a gal. No telling whether they were going steady, or friends, or brother and sister. I’m not sure which I’d rather they have been friends, I guess.

As they got close, the guy pointed and said something that confirmed my worst fears. Clearly, he wasn’t on a campus tour. This student had been around for a while, and what his question verifed for me was that people don’t even read don’t even know where to go to get books! and that effort put forth by everyone in the publishing chain from author to editor to printer to distributor is largely wasted.

I had a dark moment of the soul.

But as the two students and I passed each other, the gal crossed her arms, and I heard her say something that lifted my curtain of dread. She was angry — disgusted! — and I was proud for her, though I had never seen her before.  

She scowled, crossed her arms, and stood in a flood of his ignorance. It was inspiring!

I wanted to tap her shoulder and say,

“Listen, I appreciate what you just did. Thank you on behalf of the library, with which I am not affiliated, as well as on behalf of The Missouri Review, with which I am affiliated, although not in such a way that I am authorized to speak for it in an official capacity, so forget I mentioned that part.

“Anyway, I know this bozo here probably guesses The Missouri Review has something to do with musical theater, but I’m willing to bet you would enjoy reading it if you don’t already. You can even access it on Project Muse in the library you just pointed out to said bozo.” 

But I didn’t say that to the gal. Or anything, for that matter. I figured it’d be creepy, and that she probably already had her hands full educating the guy on the functions of other enormous and vital campus structures. Just as well, I thought.

Besides, I had my own flood to go stand in.